AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
On Sunday, Israel will mark 75 years of independence, a dream many once thought impossible. On this milestone occasion, it’s worth reflecting on the general spirit of cooperation that helped establish Israel, as well as one story in particular that manifested this spirit —the years-long campaign by Pope John Paul II to have the Roman Catholic Church officially recognize the Jewish state.
When Israel was established in 1947, there was much debate within the leadership of the Catholic Church about how the Vatican should treat the fledgling nation. In the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, there was broad support for the establishment of a Jewish nation, but centuries of fraught relations between Jews and Christians had left deep wounds. Additionally, there were some concerns that official recognition of Israel by the Pope could incite backlash against Christians living in Arab countries.
Archbishop Francis Spellman of New York, along with Monsignor Thomas J. McMahon, his closest advisor on Palestinian affairs, played a pivotal role in navigating these conflicting concerns and shaping the Vatican’s policy toward Israel under Pope Paul VI. Under Spellman’s advice, the Church officially adopted the position of pursuing friendly relations with Israel while stopping short of official recognition, and designating Israel as an international city.
The Church went a step further in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council adopted the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” The documentaddresses the Church’s relationship with all non-Catholics and specificallyaffirms the deep connection between Christianity and Judaism. It rejects anti-Semitism “any time and by anyone.”
That was an important step, but it would take the bold leadership of Pope John Paul II to make official recognition of Israel by the Vatican a reality.
As a young man in Poland, the man who would become Pope John Paul II, Karol Józef Wojtyła, saw first-hand the horrors of the Nazis’ brutal persecution of the Jewish people. During the occupation of his home country, Wojtyła belonged to an underground group that rescued Jewish families out of the ghettos and gave them new identity papers and hiding places.
Andrzej Maria Deskur, another close friend of Wojtyła who would later become a Cardinal, assisted him. This was an especially dangerous mission, since only in Poland did the Nazis institute the death penalty for helping Jews.
Upon becoming Pope in 1978, John Paul II soon made clear that he desired closer relations with Israel. But even the head of the Church would struggle to steer the Vatican’s giant bureaucratic machine away from the policies established decades earlier.
In October 1980, John Paul II caused a stir when he wished “shalom” for “your nation, the state of Israel” during official remarks. Some Vatican diplomats feared that the Pope had given the impression that the Holy See was officially recognizing the Jewish state, which, in hindsight, was exactly what John Paul II was laying the groundwork for.
One year later, in November 1981, as Cardinal Deskur reflected in a 2004 interview, John Paul II told Deskur that the Church should officially establish relations with Israel. The Pope also told Deskur that he had a strong desire to travel to Israel himself, a country where he felt at home when he visited as a Bishop.
As John Paul II and Deskur sat in prayer, Deskur said he remembered vividly the Pope asking God “for wisdom and guidance in deeds that would bring peace in relations between Jews and Christians.”
A few days later, Cardinal Deskur shared the Pope’s desire with Jerzy Kluger, a trusted childhood friend of John Paul II who was Jewish. Kluger, who had prominent connections in Israeli politics, was intrigued.
Kluger and Deskur developed a plan to build the diplomatic framework to establish an official relationship between Israel and the Vatican. First, the two identified which Arab countries had relations with the Vatican but permitted slavery. This would be a rebuttal for those who opposed Israel on supposed humanitarian grounds. Second, Kluger would ask the Israeli government to express in a letter to the Pope their willingness to establish official relations.
Soon, Kluger met another Polish Jew, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who conveyed his utmost interest in the idea and would communicate with the Pope and Israeli leaders. Thus, an informal communication channel between Israel and the Pope was opened.
In the following years, a chain of historic events occurred at the Vatican that helped usher in the momentous occasion of the opening of the Israeli embassy.
On April 13, 1986, Pope John Paul II joined Jews in prayer at the Great Synagogue of Rome, the first Pope to visit the Jewish house of worship. Rabbi Elio Toaff broke formal protocol and embraced the Pope.
The following year, in July 1987, the Pope called for a commission, which included a Jewish committee, to prepare a Catholic report on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. John Paul II met, worshiped, and prayed with Jews at Holocaust memorials during every apostolic pilgrimage.
“Every Saturday or Sunday, whenever Holy Father was in Vatican, we fervently prayed together for peace in Israel, the Holy Land and Jerusalem,” remembered Cardinal Deskur. Yet still, progress seemed far away.
Then, in December 1988, the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized Israel. Upon seeing the news, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the head of the powerful Council for Public Affairs, asked: if the PLO is negotiating with Israel, then why can’t we? Kluger reflected that these words appeared to him as if the mountain was moved, and all obstacles disappeared.
Finally, in December 1993, Israel and the Vatican signed a diplomatic treaty, and in January 1994 opened embassies. Nine months later, during a ceremony at the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, letters of credence were presented by the apostolic nuncio Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, and the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See Shmuel Hadas.
Cardinal Deskur later said that this remarkable accomplishment was the answer to John Paul II’s prayer so many years ago: “We joined those who prayed and labored that the Church would recognize that miraculous fact and affirm the right of the Jews to have their state in the geographical region of Palestine.”
More than just establishing diplomatic relations, this pivotal moment in the history of both Israel and the Church proved that persistence, faith, and a firm commitment to Christian optimism could overcome any obstacle and heal even the deepest of divisions.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.
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